Maligayang pagdating sa Pilipinas!
(Welcome to the Philippines! in Filipino/Tagolog)
(Welcome to the Philippines! in Filipino/Tagolog)
Our trip to the Philippines was one of the most physically and emotionally exhausting in many ways. Not only did we spend way too many hours on cramped ferries traveling to distant islands, but we also saw some of the starkest and most brutal poverty in Southeast Asia. When looking back on this trip it is clear that the Philippines is a country of dichotomies – the good and the bad, the rich and the poor, the kind and the violent, the beautiful and the derelict, the exciting and the frustrating, the lovely and the horribly unjust. The list could go on. And on. Read on to hear about the Philippines, a paradise for some but hell for so many others.
The Philippines are without a doubt an entirely unique country, distinct in culture, food, and traditions from any of their Southeast Asian neighbors. Our Philippines experience started on the plane, where we were surrounded already by the language of Tagalog as many of the people on our flight to Manila were immigrants working in Singapore going home to see their families. The general mood was happy, and I spent most of the flight reading through my molecular biology notes. It is shocking to me how carelessly I could go through my notes without for a moment considering the gift of education all the while nearing a nation where education for a great part of the population is an afforded luxury.
We arrived in Manila at about 9:30 pm, already in an uneasy state of fear. We were told by many friends beforehand and even the lady next to us on the plane that we were headed to one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Rumors it would seem have a powerful effect, for all these warnings and caution had artificially created fear before our plane even landed in the country. Landing in darkness, of course, did nothing but give more edge to our fears. As we unboarded, we clenched our bags in fear, looking around suspiciously as though anyone could be a potential criminal. Fear, it turns out, is an awful thing for it turned even the most kind and innocent of people into objects of itself. In the Philippines we would come to meet some of the kindest people, who were generous with their time and resources. There is also in the Philippines, especially Manila, a huge amount of organized and random crime in which either truly wicked people have abandoned their morals to commit heinous atrocities or people of no means have been driven by desperate need to acts of violence and crime just to support themselves, and sometimes a mix of the two. This does not, however, define the nation or the people. The Philippines are an amazing country, full of amazing people plagued by the wickedness of a loud and powerful minority. I am ashamed to think that my own fear controlled my judgment as we landed, and it took me some time to remember that ultimately people are people, and caution at a reasonable level is important in every place, since people can do awful things anywhere, not just in Manila.
We found that the airport was occupied by a large number of police officers, who stood by at several points around the airport to ensure no suspect activity was taking place. It also turns out they were quite friendly, and offered us directions at each turn. After pulling out Philippine pesos from the bank, headed out into an eerie darkness to find a taxi. After kindly refusing the expensive private car, we finally procured a yellow metered cab manned by a man named RJ with a slightly unnerving mannerism who gave us a small tour when we passed by each city site. In Manila we saw by cab a dirty, sprawling city of construction and alleys and crumbling buildings and tangles of electrical wires. In many of the construction flats we saw, it seemed people had even set up camp in the open unfinished floors, their makeshift home open to the night air. Haze was thick here as well, and a thin film of dirt seemed to cover the city. Jeepnees (large bus like vans with bright colors and open air seating in the back) and sidecars and tricycles (motorbikes with cars attached to the side) were everywhere, mixing in ans around the traffic.
The roads have the suggestion of lanes that normally go unheeded, so oftentimes four cars occupy the space of two, the traffic bulging under and around massive concrete freeways. It is under these winding freeways that Manila earns its wayward reputation, as the streets late at night are full of men walking around in small groups. It is impossible to know, just by looking at someone, what their intention is – the guy with hanging pants and hat over his eyes smoking a cigarette may be a respectable gentleman and the most well dressed businessman can be the worst kind of crook. It is therefore hard to know if any of the late night streetwalkers we saw were good or bad men, but the eerie sputtering streetlights and dirty freeway underpass gave the whole scene a shady feeling.
Our cab had to stop on the side of the road to ask for directions to our hostel in a very sketchy alleyway, which did nothing but continue shredding our already tired and frayed nerves. We finally arrived on a dark street to a building of several stories with a gym on the first floor where several young men were lifting weights, almost putting our nerves over the edge, until we saw the world’s smallest cat (I might even be willing to bet on that) come meowing out of the corner by the guy who was apparently checking people in on a clipboard. We followed his directions and took a cramped elevator to the fifth floor where to our great relief we found an actual hostel with lots of young adult backpackers. Our relief, Im pretty sure, was audible. We booked beds and settled for a quick dinner of rice and tapsilog, beef prepared in a typical filipino stew style. The hostel, called the Pink Manila, is creepily true to its name – everything, and I mean everything, is pink from the floor to the fountain to the ceiling to the wallpaper to the stairs to the bedsheets to the curtains. I almost thought our food would come out pink. While it worried us somewhat when we saw a couple mice scurrying by and I absolutely hated a very objectifying crude painting on one wall, we felt overall comfortable and grateful for this pink oasis. The staff was also more than kind, like Pete who even gave me a free egg with rice for dinner.
The next morning we woke to see Manila by day, which was just as jumbled as before. From the fifth floor of Pink Manila we could see a large amount of the city, which consisted mainly of a few skyscrapers surrounded by a sea of shacks and aluminum roofs separated by narrow winding streets. At the hostel, we had an included breakfast of peanut butter and toast while chatting with a guy David from Mexico, who travelled from place to place as a tattoo artist. He even had his sketchbook of instagram famous designs out as he ate breakfast. We then headed out to the street to find a cab to take us to the pier under the melting sun, which proved nearly impossible. After a half hour of fruitlessly hailing cabs on a busy street where no one stops for pedestrians, a nice police officer finally hailed one for us. It was during this cab ride that we noticed how cab drivers have an interesting habit of bilking tourists in an obvious way. After we had climbed aboard, he set our fare as 300 pesos even though the meter was running. We had been told at our hostel that the rate was 100 or 150 max, so we told him that was our rate. To our surprise, he actually stopped driving. He had taken us to an unknown street farther off the beaten track, and wouldn’t keep going until we met his price. Not wanting to get out in an unknown area, we brought the price to 250 pesos after which he resumed driving. We arrived at the pier after heavy Manila traffic, and saw the meter showed 200 for our trip. We balked and showed him his own meter, saying it was unfair to pay more than 200 pesos, which of course angered him. Not wanting to start an argument, we caved and paid the agreed price begrudgingly. We felt guilty in a way arguing over 50 pesos, which while a little over $1 for us is probably means a lot more for him and his family. At the same time, it is hard to see such a lack of integrity and ease in scamming others.
At the pier, we purchased our ferry tickets (which were 2300 apiece) from
2GO Travel, which basically has a monopoly on transport between Manila, Coron, Boracay, Cebu, and Puerto Princesa. The pier in Manila is disgusting – black water full of trash, polluted air, dirty streets and overcrowded with boats. We boarded the “cruise” around 12 pm where we found a system designed to cram as many people as possible into the ship. Our third floor economy beds felt like a refugee ship, with dozens of rows of bunkbeds packed together. Local Filipinos and foreigners alike were packed in like Sardines in voyage to Coron. There was luggage and passengers all over the place and the bunk mattresses were army cot stiffness. Apparently there were private cabins and a lounge downstairs, but we never saw this luxury. It took the ship another 2 hours or so to finally depart. We then settled in for a long 15 hours of voyage, during which we drew pictures, read poetry, and stared at the ceiling. For hours. And hours. Dinner was distributed in styrofoam boxes and consisted of a scoop of white rice with mystery meat jello. We checked out the ship’s mess hall, which proved terrible. Needless to say, the rest of the day’s diet consisted almost entirely of white rice.In the evening as the sky darkened, we headed out to the deck to watch as we passed through bright clear navy waters around looming green island hills. A few times we even saw little fishing bangka boats and as the sky darkened the horizon was speckled with a few island lights. We also got the joy of seeing a lightening show from the deck, where long striking lines of lightening peeled the sky in the distance and illuminated looming clouds with beautiful colors of maroon and gray and blue and gold. This show was set against the stunning starry night sky, where constellations shown out from a relatively unpolluted sky.
Other than the natural wonders, the ship amused us with a few other oddities, including a nice group of gals from Tahoe, a really drunk man from Taiwan who invited himself to our dinner table for a chat, and a terrible karaoke display on the deck. It was a solid trip. We then settled in to sleep, or try at least on stiff beds. I slept very little, and took many night walks around the deck in the ocean breeze. We arrived at 4:30 am bedraggled, sleepless, and honestly really smelly after several days without a shower. After unboarding we hired one of the dozens of tricycles to take us to our hostel. The driver was of the same vein as our driver in Manila. He started at a price of 150 pesos, to which was said 100 was more reasonable. Being tired and groggy we didn’t realize how absurdly high this was. Upon boarding we noticed a hanging poster in the cab saying the price into town was 10 pesos. When we arrived we showed him the price, to which he stubbornly said today is special so we owed him more since it was an early arrival. We responded that there are boats arriving four times a week, so there is only one price. The only special thing in this situation is this man’s special (though sadly not unique) ability to radically overcharge people. We ended up paying him 50, which was already a huge markup, just to get him to leave since we felt at an unsafe advantage standing in the dark on the side of an unknown, unpaved road. The Coron BackPackers Hostel is located by the oceanfront, and can only be located by walking through a winding alleyway of roosters and cats. We mistakenly walked into someone’s private home on the way where a bunch of younger gals were making breakfast and had to refer us to the right place farther back. We arrived finally only to learn there were no beds so we made our way up a dark street to Marley’s Backpackers where we booked beds for later that night and sat in the lobby with terribly slow wifi to watch the sunrise.
At 6 am when it was light, we walked into town to find breakfast, feeling the effects of a terrible diet the days before. We ended up at Foodtrip, a local spot showing really old movies where we ordered cheap vegetable fried rice. It was neat on our walk back to see the town begin to wake up. We then headed back to Coron Backpackers to book a tour, and the lady let us use the hostel showers (which may have been mercy since we smelled so badly. The guide then picked us up and we boarded a bangka boat with about a dozen other people on voyage to Coron Island led by a local crew and guide Chino whose favorite catch phrase was “don’t worry be happy”. I should note that we were staying in Coron Town, which is the main city on Basuangas Island and looks across the water at Coron Island. The whole region of Palawan consists of many of these green island gems around blue sparkling waters.
Our trip on the “Jubilant Mae” bangka was nothing short of a dream. Pictures of white sand beaches and brilliant turquoise waters and forested rocky cliffs are considered paradise, and I can now say from experience that this is one of those places where pictures don’t do paradise justice. And the best part, unlike Phuket, is that Coron is not overcrowded, meaning it can be enjoyed in near solitary luxury. Our boat floated across brilliant blue waters around verdant cliffs and beaches, stopping at places like the Green Lagoon, the coral reef at CYC beach, and Sunset beach for snorkeling in water such a clear shade of ocean teal that one could see all the way to the bottom where there was an abundance of colorful fish, coral, rocks, and wildlife. We swam in and around beautiful rock sculptures through water that reflected the sun’s golden rays like diamonds. Everything was beautiful, more magnificent and surreal than I am capable of describing. It felt like a dream come true. We had lunch on Sunset beach prepared by the crew onboard, consisting of fresh grilled fish, traditional chicken adobo, traditional filipino yams, and of course, rice. It was after lunch, however, that we came to my favorite paradise – Kayangan lake. This lake is essentially a freshwater oasis within Coron Island, reached by climbing about three hundred steps throughout the green hills. The view even from the top of this hill is immaculate, looking over beautiful green islands and stunning blue water that looks like a painting. Descending to Kayangan Lake is the stuff of legends – the lake is essentially bordered by green rocky walls and is the most beautiful shade of perfect clean blue. The lake wraps around the hills like a blanket beyond where the eyes can see, giving the whole place the appearance of an eternal enchanted valley. If there was ever a magical place like the fount of life, this would be it. A small wooden walkway has been built over the water around the edge for people, and only a handful of people were there. If one looked within a 300 degree radius at any point, it would appear one was alone in the glorious splendor of Kayangan lake. Diving in revealed an amazing deep blueness of rocks and small fish that resembled baby swordfish. I have never wanted to be a mermaid more than in that moment. Swimming for an hour in Kayangan lake and descending the steps to a bay of glittering blue under a golden setting sun makes April 2, 2016 forever priceless in my mind. I love how the whole day was bathed in beautiful views, sunshine, and the freedom of jumping off our little bangka to explore blue paradises. It is continually more extraordinary to me how absolutely beautiful this world is – even despite humanity’s best efforts to mess it up. We cover the Earth in trash, burn our plastic, pollute our water with sewage, infect our land with factory filth, and yet still the world holds the most exquisite gems. This trip has made clear, as have my other travels in Southeast Asia, how important it is to take care of the world. As a biomedical engineer, I have a great passion for medicine that heals people, but I have come to see that people’s wellbeing depends so much on the environment in which they live. It is so important to manage things like pollution and sewage and trash so that people can have access to clean water, fresh foods, and pure air – these are what improve quality of human life on the most basic level. And the added advantage is getting to continue enjoying the Earth’s splendor in all its precious rich fullness. It makes me think a lot of Disney’s Pocahontas line about how “The Earth is not some dead thing we can claim” – appreciating the world we live in all its colors and sounds and beauties is essential for enjoying its resources fully.
Back in Coron Town sunburnt and happy we headed through town only to find that the night worker at Marley’s had incorrectly logged our booking, and since they were full there was no room for us which can be problematic on a Saturday night in a place with only a handful of hostels. We searched other options for an hour and a half before finding Lagrosa Hostel where we dropped our bags and headed to dinner at Levine’s restaurant. This neat spot was a family owned kitchen with three stories, the third story of which where we ate overlooks the blue bay. We watched the sunset while we waited for a great meal of Thai green curry and Chicken adobo, which was worth the two hour wait for the stellar view and taste. We then headed down to see the town, which was buzzing with locals grilling meat, families sitting on the curb with toddlers running about, and tourists taking it all in. Exhausted from a full day and sleepless night, we headed back and crashed.
The next morning we awoke early to pay for our ferry tickets back to Manila, which were arranged on the backend by our hostel owners since the ship was technically full. We then headed out to explore the city (and find an ATM since our future eating depended on it). We ended up eating brunch at a delicious local hole in the wall called La Brujita, and we returned to Levine’s for fantastic pancakes with banana. We then hired a tricycle to take us to the base of Tapyas mountain, which is home to the massive Coron sign (notorious for its Hollywood style) and cross. We made the trek up these 720 stairs in the scalding heat and were rewarded with breathtaking views of the island. From this peak the islands were a dazzling collection of mossy green rocks in pools of blue where bright patches of turquoise lit up the water as though there were underwater lights on the sandbars.
After this trek it was time collect our sketchily purchased tickets and wait for the ferry, which arrived late and we boarded late. In the waiting area we bought cashews from a sweet little middle school boy named RJ who was selling food to help his mother make ends meet. With a cute smile he expressed how his favorite subject in school was math. We proceeded to sit onboard for another six hours after the scheduled departure time because there was a technical difficulty in closing the loading dock. An impressive crowd of onlookers gathered over the deck railing to watch the mess the entire six hours as though staring at it would make them workers go faster. The bright side was getting to see a lovely sunset over Coron Island, which is always a spectacular sight from its inception to the final pink wafts of cloudy smoke hanging over the mountains. In total this meant that we spent the two hours between boarding and the intended depart, in addition to the six hours of delay at the dock, in addition to the fifteen hour voyage, for a grand total of about 23 hours on this cramped ferry boat. They fed us three times, all of which consisted of a scoop of white rice and gelatinous mystery meat mush (that I skeptically think was tuna). One meal even came with a dried fish rhine complete with tail that looked like it hadn’t been in the water for the last few decades. Needless to say it was a long day of eating white rice and the oreo cookies we had thankfully had the foresight to bring along. The voyage was spent drawing, sleeping, reading, and writing. What struck me most about this experience was how there were so many people who had to deal with this struggle. The boat was full of mothers with infant children, elderly people, and young families making their way back to Manila. It seemed this route was the most heavily transited for workers and families alike since Manila is the center of commerce. It was precious but also somewhat heartbreaking to see several bunks occupied by mothers curled around her baby and small child, or an elderly couple snuggled together on a bunk only large enough for one person at the most. There were even men on board with canvas bags holding chickens and roosters (which were very loud at 4 am). Coming from the comfort of the United States and Singapore, the food for example was definitely not appetizing and filling, but it was what was being served to so many people and was likely an average meal for many people.
Our boat finally approached Manila around 1:30 pm, which was slightly depressing as we watched the vessel travel into the brown haze over the skyline through disgusting brown water littered with trash (trash that was contributed to, in part, even by our passengers as I saw many carelessly throw their cigarettes into the sea). Worse even than the terrible pollution, however, was seeing what awaited us in the harbor. At the Manila North Harbor, the docks are framed with hundreds of shacks stilted over this poisonous water, though to call these shacks is perhaps too generous a word. What we saw was more piles of rotting wood and heaps of rubbish and torn ragged curtains used as makeshift walls and rusted aluminum roofs with holes all covered in dirt and grime. One little hovel was built over another, as brown and contaminated as the water. Seeing these living conditions just made my heart crack. I can’t even begin to imagine the living conditions, the sanitation, the quality of health in this pile of derelict homes. I can’t imagine children raised running around barefoot over trash on the shores of this awful harbor water. I can’t imagine families breathing in air from the factories and cargo ships every day. Seeing this made me want to look away and never look back. And driving through Manila, unfortunately, was not much better. After boarding a Jeepnee at the port (the typical truck which they jammed with about twenty people and their luggage at way more than carrying capacity), we drove through so many streets of the same where mothers were washing their babies in aluminum tins on the street filled with muddy water, little boys were chasing each other barefoot on streets of broken glass and trash, and young men sat with rudimentary tools repairing old metal sidecars. These little homes were packed together as tightly as people in a Jeepnee, each one built of all sorts of fraying and broken odds and ends, patched up and splintered. Cars passed on narrow streets practically on the front door steps and on some streets we even saw pick-up basketball games with no shoes on cramped courts made out of a slightly widened sidewalks cloistered against cars. The smell mirrored what you might expect from the sight – the streets smelled strongly of sewage, urine, waste, vehicle fumes, and rotten garbage.
We spent the remainder of the day in Manila visiting Intramuros, the site of the Spanish fort which was constructed and occupied by the Spanish government in the 16th century, later occupied by the British, then the US, then the Japanese when it was converted to a prisoner of war camp during WWII. There was a museum with very little information, mostly dedicated to Jose Rizal who was executed for inspiring revolutionary revolts against Spanish occupation. We also saw a beautiful cathedral with lovely stained glass windows where we even got to see the beginnings of a wedding. After seeing this region, we took a taxi ride through the city to a different district called Makati. En route through terrible traffic, we passed through multiple neighborhoods and what was most striking was how in every place there were hundreds of campaign posters for various people running for congressman, senator, mayor, etc. These brightly colored posters looked somewhat out of place hanging over rundown slums or plastered on the front of crumbling grimmy buildings as though the poverty could be covered up with a bandaid. Its shocking to think that the money used to print those posters could have been spent repainting the building or patching the roof or cleaning the streets where they are hung. Hopefully someday those people elected will help to make the streets as bright and colorful as their campaign posters. Where we ended up in Downtown Manila was drastically different than the slums spanning the rest of the city – here there were skyscrapers, several embassies, large malls, decently fancy restaurants, and even a few luxury hotels. It was so shocking to see how such disparate places could be part of the same city, let alone the same avenue. After dinner, we took a taxi back to the Airport rather early before our flight, which was good because we arrived at terminal 3 only to find our tigerair flight was departing from terminal 1 located 45 minutes on the other side of the city so we had to take a shuttle. Thus ended our Philippines trip, on a plane headed back to Singapore enjoying a Starbucks treat as we flew over miles of slums.
The Philippines amaze me as a country in part due to the discrepancy of the natural beauty and the generally poor quality of life for so much of the population. Even in Coron where the tourism industry is strong, there seems to be very little if any accumulation of wealth. A substantial amount of the Filipino population lives in poverty, the educational system is still not well established, and there is minimal socioeconomic mobility for many people especially in rural regions. As mentioned previously, the Philippines are a place where great violence and corruption damage the livelihoods of the people living there. Infrastructure, like in many Southeast Asian nations, also needs a serious upgrade. The toilets in Coron for example, are unflushable. Instead gravity is the main expelling force and a bucket is used to scoop in water, which is not only unsanitary but also demonstrates a poor system of waster disposal. Small signs of change are coming, however, as seen by the solar panels on our little bangka boat. The change is just slow and laborious. Yet despite these roadblocks to development, the Philippines have an extraordinarily beautiful culture in so many ways – the emphasis on faith, for example, is strong and powerful. Even on the ferry, a prayer was spoken over the loudspeaker during morning and evenings, people could be seen praying in Jeepnees, and when taxi drivers passed cathedrals they would make the sign of the cross. I love that despite so much of the pain in this nation, there is still so much faith and hope in love and redemption.
Poverty in the Philippines is unlike any I have seen. In Cambodia we saw shacks on dusty arid land, in Myanmar we saw small farm homes with basic supplies, and in Thailand we saw crammed poor city streets. But poverty in Manila was the raw dirt and hodgepodge of filthy crowded slums. Everything in the city seemed dirty, covered in a sort of hazey soot and the smell of urine. The shacks are derelict, and the streets are the wasteland of cigarettes and trash and rodents and sewage. Poverty in Manila means living in a hole in the wall of stacked shacks under a roof covered with broken sheets of old rusted metal and fraying tarps. It means living accustomed to the thick smell of sewage and rotting garbage. It means bathing in water the color of earth. It means being squished against traffic and construction and constant dust. It means being crammed in and around freeways with the litter of the streets. Poverty is so much more heartbreaking than can be expressed from thousands of miles away protected by the walls of a nice home from the comfort of a warm bed. I was fortunate in my youth to see a great deal of poverty everywhere from the reservation in my hometown of Bishop, CA to the slums of Santiago de Chile to the poor streets of Panama and Peru. I have worked with some of the poorest rural farm workers in Ecuador, helping to provide medical services for people with sickening chronic diseases who could never afford to see a doctor. And after seeing all this pain, my response was to write about the things that had broken my heart and made me feel like vomiting – to write about the realities that made me want to scream in agony for the people I saw suffering in the awful truth of poverty that I felt powerless to help. Southeast Asia has not necessarily shown me anything new in the sense that I have seen poverty of this scope before. What places like the Philippines have done for me however is remind me just how painfully real and loud and dirty and personal and ridiculously widespread poverty is throughout the world. It would be terrible enough to have one person living this way, let alone millions. Seeing each one of these precious humans trampled – by the oppression of need, the oppression of constant hunger, the oppression of constant sickness – should be enough to tear us apart and wreck our very core. I could have written articles about human injustice and ranted about global ethics and analyzed international relations all I wanted from the safety of home and the protection of textbook knowledge before traveling and it would have been a good learning experience but at the end of the day it would leave me content in my own home, separated by what seems like a thick veil from the truth of what I was writing about. If I had not traveled, I would never know what it feels like to look someone in the eyes as they sit in the slums, see the dirt on their skin, see the mother washing her child in dirty water, see the children peeking crusted feet out from soiled curtains, smell the filth, breathe the dirty air, cake my own feet with grime walking the streets. I could have thought about all the engineering challenges I wanted to solve someday, but if I had not traveled I would never have personally seen the lack of sewage infrastructure, the lack of medical equipment and personnel, the desperate lack of sanitation and clean water, the terrible food practices. And if I had not seen these things, I would never have known what the real global challenges for engineers truly look like, smell like, feel like. Seeing and experiencing creates urgency, creates need, and creates the desire to do something by shattering complacency. I feel I am no longer content to sit in my room any longer just ranting with the pen. Seeing the Philippines just engraves the truth so much deeper within me that I have to do something, even if its only small, to help people somewhere – to use what I know to make life better for someone somewhere who is suffering. Traveling awakens our heart to do something about the broken world we live in.
I desperately hope that one day the nation of the Philippines will be able to stand as mightily and splendidly as the white sand and brilliant blue waters of the territory it possess. It is my hope that someday the Philippines will be known for its people of integrity and substance rather than feared for the prevalence of violence. I hope that someday when people land in Manila the first thing they think of is all the great things rather than all the bad. I hope that someday every Filipino child like RJ can study math just because they like it and then go on to do great things for themselves and their country. I hope that my children know a different Philippines than I have seen – one of a beautiful land AND a beautiful safe country.
See below to see some of the photos from the trip!
Just some snapshots of the journey 🙂
I hope you all have a great week – today is a great day to engineer something for someone in your community![author title=”Author” author_id=””] href="#" data-color-override="false" data-hover-color-override="false" data-hover-text-color-override="#fff">Button Text